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Foods

Turkey
Why Eat It
Varieties
Shopping
Storage
Preparation
Nutrition Chart


Why Eat It

In the past, turkey was regarded as a once-a-year treat at Thanksgiving or Christmas--90% of all turkeys were sold during November and December--and many cooks felt that whole bird entailed too much work to serve at other times of the year. But today health-conscious people are making turkey a part of their regular diet. As a result, turkeys are now produced in greater numbers and are available in many forms, in contrast to a few years ago when turkeys were mostly available whole. Consumers can select the parts they prefer, such as whole or half breasts, cutlets, and tenderloins; these cook much faster than a whole bird.

Turkey breast is the leanest of all meats, supplying just 119 calories and less than half a gram of fat per 3-ounce serving, skinned. Even with skin, a 3-ounce serving only climbs another 55 calories, and the total derives only 18% of its calories from fat. The dark meat is higher in fat than the light meat, but it is still relatively lean if eaten without the skin, deriving only about 34% of its calories from fat.

Turkey is high in the nutrients for which meat is known. It is not only an excellent source of protein, B vitamins (niacin and B6), phosphorus, selenium, and zinc. It also has some iron, riboflavin, and magnesium.

Varieties

The wild turkeys of yesteryear have largely been replaced--at least for food--by domestic turkeys, which are farm-raised birds bred for their broad breasts and juicy, flavorful flesh. Domestic turkeys weigh six to 24 pounds and have large breasts in relation to their legs and wings--they are so out of proportion, in fact, that domestic turkeys cannot fly more than a few feet at a time.

Most of the turkeys found on the market are young and will have tender meat. The most common types of turkey are:

Fryer/roasters: The youngest and most tender turkeys available, fryer/roasters are under 16 weeks old at slaughter. Their small size--five to nine pounds--makes them good choices for small families. They can be roasted, broiled, or grilled.

Hens: These female turkeys, five to seven months old, weigh between eight and 18 pounds. Some cooks believe that hens have a larger proportion of white to dark meat. Hens can be roasted, broiled, or grilled.

Toms: There are those cooks who believe that the only relevant difference between a tom and a hen is size--tom turkeys weigh up to 24 pounds. Others insist that toms have tastier meat. Like hens, toms can be roasted, broiled, or grilled.

Mature hens or toms: These are older turkeys and are not often found on the market. They are best stewed or poached.

Turkey parts: Turkey is available in sections. All-white meat breasts come in whole or half form, with the bone in or boneless. Breast steaks are crosswise cuts 1/2" to 1" thick; breast steaks that are 1/4" to 3/8" thick are called cutlets. Tenderloins are the whole muscles on the inside of the turkey breast. Tenderloins are also sliced lengthwise into 1/2"-thick steaks, called tenderloin steaks. Thighs and drumsticks are all-dark meat sections sold separately or together as hindquarters. Wings are white-meat sections sold with the bone in.

Ground turkey: Provided that it's made from mostly light meat, ground turkey can be a leaner substitute for ground beef. Packaged ground turkey often contains dark meat, however, and may derive 54% of its calories from fat. But some processors do sell turkey ground from breast meat only (check ingredient labels). You can be sure of very lean ground meat if you buy fresh turkey parts--breast cutlets or tenderloins, for example--and have the butcher grind them for you, or grind them yourself. Ground turkey can be substituted for ground beef, but it needs more seasoning; tomato juice, egg white, and herbs will add moisture and flavor.

Shopping

Like chicken, turkey is graded by the USDA if the processors request and pay for it. The graded turkey sold in supermarkets is Grade A, which means that it is well shaped, free of feathers, and has a layer of fat. Check that the skin is unbroken, free of cuts, tears, bruises, or blemishes. When buying turkey parts, choose those which are moist and pink. The skin, if any, should be creamy white, not bluish.

The sell-by date on fresh turkey is seven days after the bird has been processed. The turkey is fresh until then, and for a day or two afterward. Don't buy fresh turkey--whole or parts--unless you plan to cook it within that time period.

Frozen turkeys should be rock hard and stored well below the freezer line in the refrigerated case. Make sure the package is tightly sealed and the turkey is free of freezer burn and ice crystals. Avoid packages that have a lot of frozen liquid in them; the fluid indicates that the turkey was defrosted and refrozen. If frozen turkey is properly handled at the store and at home, there should be no difference in quality between fresh and frozen birds.

When buying a whole bird, make sure to select one that will fit into your oven. The number of people you plan to feed will determine the size of bird you buy. Allow 3/4 of a pound per person, a pound if you want leftovers. If the bird is over 12 pounds, you should allow 1/2 to 3/4 pound per person, since larger birds have a greater proportion of meat to bone.

Storage

As soon as you get fresh turkey home from the store, place it in the coldest part of the refrigerator. To reduce the chance of contaminating other foods with salmonella, store turkey in its original tight wrapping, except if you have purchased a whole bird with the giblets. Remove the giblets from the turkey and store them in a separate container; they should be used or frozen within 24 hours. Rewrap the turkey in butcher paper or heavy-duty aluminum foil. Above all, see that the package does not leak juices onto other foods; overwrap the turkey or place it on a platter in the refrigerator.

If you can't use the turkey within one or two days of purchase, freeze it. However, home freezers are not cold enough to quick-freeze a whole bird so as to eliminate the risk of salmonella. It is therefore essential that the turkey be cut into parts first. Rinse the turkey parts in cold water and dry them with paper towels, then wrap them in heavy-duty aluminum foil or freezer paper, and seal the package tightly. Turkey parts will keep for six months in a freezer set at 0°F. If you've bought a whole frozen bird, it will keep for up to a year, but just remember that you do not know how long it stayed in the store's freezer.

Once cooked, turkey will keep for three to four days in the refrigerator. Carve all of the meat from a turkey carcass and wrap and store it within two hours of removing the bird from the oven. Always store turkey, gravy, and stuffing separately. (Gravy and stuffing should be used within two days; bring leftover gravy to a rolling boil before serving.) You can also freeze leftover turkey, stuffing, and gravy for up to a month. Wrap the turkey securely in freezer paper or heavy-duty aluminum foil.

Preparation

Keep turkey refrigerated until you plan to use it. Rinse it under cold running water, and pluck out any stray pinfeathers with a pair of tweezers. (If you're preparing a whole bird that has previously been frozen, remove the giblets and the neck before rinsing.) Be sure to wash the counter top, sink, utensils, and your hands with hot, soapy water after handling raw turkey.

Never thaw a frozen turkey at room temperature. The turkey will thaw from the outside in, leaving the surface prone to bacterial growth before the inside has fully thawed. The safest way to thaw a frozen turkey is in the refrigerator. The length of time it takes will depend on the size of the bird. Place the turkey in a shallow baking pan or on a tray to catch any liquid as the bird defrosts.

Defrosting a turkey in cold water takes a shorter time, but requires some vigilance. Check the wrapping to make sure there are no tears, then place the wrapped bird in the sink or a large container and cover the turkey with cold water. (If the package is torn, place the turkey in a tightly sealed plastic bag.) Change the water every 30 minutes to keep it cold. This method significantly reduces thawing time.

Whether you're preparing a whole bird or turkey parts, leave the skin on during cooking. The skin will help keep the meat moist and juicy, and won't increase the fat content of the turkey as long as it is removed before eating.

Stuffings are especially prone to bacterial contamination; the bacteria in the raw poultry can get into the stuffing and multiply. Consider cooking the stuffing separately from the turkey; it will save you time and work. In addition, an unstuffed turkey cooks faster than a stuffed one. Before roasting, simply flavor the cavity with some chopped onion, celery, apple and herbs. Add a clove or two of garlic if you like.

If you decide to stuff the bird, do so just before you're ready to cook it. Stuff the bird loosely (tightly packed stuffing cooks more slowly, and stuffing expands as it cooks). Fold the neck skin over the back and secure with skewers or toothpicks. Tie the legs together with clean string, or use metal "hock-locks," if they're provided. Once the turkey is cooked, check the internal temperature of the stuffing with a meat thermometer; it is done at 165°F. Never let a stuffed turkey sit at room temperature. Remove the cooked stuffing from the turkey immediately and serve it separately; keep the remaining stuffing in a warm oven (200°F), or refrigerate it in a tightly closed container.

Broiling or grilling: Turkey parts can be broiled or grilled on a barbecue, like chicken parts, as well as broiled in the oven. Whole turkeys or turkey breasts can be cooked in a covered kettle grill. Be sure the rack is 6" to 8" from the heat source. Turn turkey parts occasionally as they cook; they will take an hour or more, depending on size and thickness. For whole birds and breasts, use a meat thermometer.

Roasting: Place the whole turkey, breast side up (or turkey breast, round side up), on a rack in a shallow roasting pan (the rack allows heat to circulate freely). Insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh muscle or directly into the breast, if cooking just a breast; be careful not to touch the bone. Roast the turkey, uncovered, in a 325°F oven for 12 to 15 minutes per pound for unstuffed and 15 to 20 minutes per pound stuffed, or until the thermometer reaches 180°F (or 170°F when cooking the breast alone). If areas of the turkey brown too quickly, shield those parts with some aluminum foil.

If you don't have a meat thermometer, some turkeys and turkey breasts are sold with a pop-up thermometer that lets you know when the turkey is done. Another test: A turkey is done when the leg moves up and down easily and the hip joint gives readily. Or, pierce the thickest part of the inner thigh with a fork; the turkey is done if the juices run clear, not pink. Let the turkey stand 15 minutes before carving.

Other roasting methods combine roasting and steaming techniques to produce a moist and flavorful bird. Set the turkey on a roasting rack in a roasting pan and add about 3 1/2 cups of water to the bottom of the pan; if the water evaporates, add more. The juices and drippings will run into the water in the pan, which can later be defatted and serve as the basis for a gravy.

Cooks differ over the advantages of basting. Many take the position that basting is not necessary since it cannot penetrate the turkey, and that opening the oven door to baste will reduce the oven temperature and therefore increase cooking time. Other cooks feel that basting prevents the light meat from drying out. You'll have to experiment and see which option you prefer. If you do decide to baste, use defatted chicken or turkey stock instead of pan drippings, which are a concentrated source of fat. But if you prefer the pan drippings, skim the fat from them before you baste. To maintain an even oven temperature, baste no more often than every 30 minutes.

Nutrition Chart

Turkey/3 ounces roasted skinless white meat

119
Total fat (g)
1
Saturated fat (g)
0.3
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0.2
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.3
Dietary fiber (g)
0
26
Carbohydrate (g)
0
Cholesterol (mg)
73
Sodium (mg)
48
Niacin (mg)
5.9
Vitamin B6 (mg)
0.5
Phosphorus (mg)
184
Selenium (mcg)
25

Turkey/3 ounces roasted skinless dark meat

159
Total fat (g)
6.1
Saturated fat (g)
2.1
Monounsaturated fat (g)
1.4
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
1.8
Dietary fiber (g)
0
24
Carbohydrate (g)
0
Cholesterol (mg)
72
Sodium (mg)
67
Niacin (mg)
3.1
Vitamin B6 (mg)
0.3
Phosphorus (mg)
174
Selenium (mcg)
35
Zinc (mg)
3.8


Date Published: 04/21/2005
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